A Grown Man’s Report on Learning How to Enjoy and Respect Alcohol for the First Time in His Forties
I moaned audibly as I rested on my hotel bed in Dallas, Texas. As my head throbbed and my stomach churned, I begged for relief. My first time ever drinking alcohol was in October 2018, only three months prior to this event. Now here I was, 24 hours after a night of dinner and drinking with co-workers, still suffering through my very first hangover. I was 45 then but was likely less experienced with booze than any kid hitting the bar for the first time on their 21st birthday. I had always heard about hangovers being miserable, and now I knew what everyone was talking about. While still in this state of agony, I decided I would never again feel this way and realized the best cure was prevention. That inspiration was the genesis of an alcohol safety plan that would last a year, and perhaps a lifetime.
I was raised to be a strict, rule-abiding, orthodox member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, otherwise known as Mormons. I grew up and created a devout Mormon household of my own, but at the age of 44, during the summer of 2018, I realized that the Church was no longer satisfying my spiritual needs and I left. As you may know, the consumption of alcohol is forbidden in Mormonism. The faith’s religious leaders often use fear as a tool to persuade members to obey this tenant. An additional tool of enforcement is to deny members who admit to consuming alcohol the opportunity to enter the Church’s exclusive temples. I grew up learning that drinking alcohol and even just being inside a bar would separate me from the Spirit of God, leaving me alone in my fight against Satan and his demonic army. Church teachers also explained that only through complete abstention could we avoid becoming overcome by demon liquor’s power. Add to that the fact that I actually do come from a family plagued by alcoholism on my father’s side and the warnings expanded to include my parents’ explanation that we Clavins are genetically more susceptible to alcoholism and should beware. Another common topic I heard discussed among the most conscientious Mormons I knew was regarding the notion that some people have addictive personalities and are therefore super-duper susceptible to alcoholism. Simply put, I was raised to fear alcohol. Because of these dire warnings, I didn’t dare try it, and though I remained mildly curious, I ignored and suppressed that interest for decades.
To set the record straight, I had tasted some alcohol before 2018, but I did not ingest. When I was about eight years old, and thinking it was a glass of refreshing ginger ale, I took a sip of my Grandma’s evening cocktail but spit it out immediately because it tasted like death in a glass. Later, at the age of 12, while spending the night with a friend, we raided his dad’s liquor cabinet and headed outside. I took a swig of peach Schnapps right from the bottle like a frat brother, but when I realized it didn’t taste like a tangy peach nectar and felt like fire in my mouth, I sprayed it all over the bushes. It would be another 33 years before I dared try alcohol again. Even through four years of military service and many years of traveling around the world on business, I never took even one sip.
The Inexperienced Man-Boy Tries Something New
After I left the Mormon Church and reclaimed my personal authority, it dawned on me that many of the myriad religious rules which had controlled my life no longer applied to me. I started getting curious again about trying alcohol, but it took me a while to build up the courage to drink any. Religious indoctrination from birth pushes roots deep into the mind. Even though I no longer believed the truth claims of the Mormon Church, I was still scared that I would, in fact, become an alcoholic if I drank. Another factor was that my wife, still a believing Mormon, was strongly against me drinking and pleaded with me to promise not to start. She too was worried that I would become an alcoholic, and since the dust from my spiritual transition away from Mormonism had not yet settled, I agreed to abstain. Not long after, however, through some coaching and introspection, she realized this request was actually about managing her own fears, which were not entirely based on reality. She came to understand that she was treating me like a child who could not be trusted and quickly released me from my promise of complete soberness.
In October of 2018, I was out of town on business and decided the time was right. I walked over to the AM/PM market next to the hotel and bought a bottle of Sierra Nevada lager and a can of Angry Orchard hard cider. I nervously sat on the bed and cracked both containers open. They sounded crisp and I felt like I was living inside of some awkward, teenage coming of age drinking scene in a movie. I lifted the Angry Orchard can from the nightstand with anxious anticipation and took a long swig. I swallowed the satisfying flavor of fresh, crisp apple; then exhaled the surprising taste of stale, dirty socks. I took a few more drinks to make sure my taste buds were registering the flavor correctly. They were and I was quite disappointed. Apples weren’t supposed to taste that way! That’s when I turned to the lager. This was alcohol’s chance to redeem itself. I took a long pull from the bottle, and while it felt light and refreshing going down, the flavor upon exhale was nothing but bitterness! What was happening? Were Mormons commanded to avoid booze because God knew it tasted terrible? After forcing myself to drink about two-fifths of each beverage, I couldn’t ignore the flavor any longer and quit. I was also expecting to feel drunk and happy within a few swallows, and although I did notice a slight buzzy feeling in my head, I was certainly not drunk, nor did I feel especially happy.
Over the next few weeks, I pondered my hotel room drinking experiment and wondered if alcohol just wasn’t for me. I had wanted to rebel against the rules I no longer felt bound by, and after a lifetime of strict obedience, I felt dejected that the experience wasn’t more satisfying. I wondered why people liked alcohol so much and if I would ever learn to enjoy it. The oft-quoted Book of Mormon phrase, “wickedness never was happiness,” echoed in my head and I internally debated whether or not this experience had proven that statement to be true.
Later that month I traveled to North Carolina for a company conference. There was an open bar there with the makings of every alcoholic concoction imaginable. I decided to try again, but this time I consulted with the bartender to get his suggestion. We decided on a lime mojito. I drank it and loved it! The blend of lime, mint, sugar, and rum was perfection and I enjoyed every drop. While talking to co-workers that evening, I held the glass long after it was empty and drank the runoff from the melting, rum-coated ice. I had found something I liked, and as a new and relaxing warmth gently descended over me, I finally understood why people loved alcohol so much. I was surprised by how good I felt, both while I drank and when I woke up the next day. I didn’t notice the feeling of any holy presence departing from me while I was drinking that delicious beverage. Nor did I feel a lack of peace and comfort when I woke up in the morning. I felt rested, content and happy. I had experienced something new and I liked it.
In early December 2018, my wife and I traveled to visit my sister and her family in Texas. My sister had left the Mormon Church many years before and her husband was raised as a Catholic. They are both fun-loving, happy people who enjoy good food and good drinks. They rolled out the red carpet for us and took us to a fancy dinner then dancing at a local piano bar. My brother-in-law introduced me to a few new drinks, including rum and grapefruit juice, vodka and cranberry juice, and Fireball shots. I have always been an inhibited person and especially didn’t like dancing in front of people because I thought I looked like a doofus. The fact remains that I do look like a doofus while dancing, but with a little booze buzz going, I loosened right up and had a great time shaking my moneymaker on the floor. I eventually got drunk to the point of, what I now call, feeling “jolly.” Jolliness is a warm, peaceful sensation that lightens the mind and relaxes the body. While in the state of jolliness I feel love for my family, friends and all the world. It’s a wonderful sensation.
Another moment of discovery came in mid-December when a very good friend and I did a half-day wine tasting tour in Lodi, CA. We stopped at two wineries — The Dancing Fox and Oak Farms — and tried a handful of wines. I tasted my first port and learned that I really enjoy the flavor of cabernet sauvignon. We drank, talked about our families and just savored a moment of life together. My lived experience with alcohol that day differed so greatly from the indoctrinated fear I was raised with that my mind reeled incredulously and I laughed out loud at the thought that I could have ever looked down on such a natural thing as sharing some wine and conversation with a friend. I remember asking out loud, “How is this evil?” It didn’t feel evil. In fact, it felt like the opposite of evil. That day in Lodi with a close friend and my night out at a piano bar with my family remain as two cherished memories that still warm my heart.
My First Hangover
On 3 January 2019, I went to Dallas, TX for a two-day company meeting. Our group met all day then went out to a nice steak house for dinner afterward. The waiter came around to take drink orders and since I still didn’t have a good grasp on drink menu nomenclature, I asked for my recent favorite, a lime mojito. Then, as the hors d’oeuvres came out, the group ordered two bottles of pinot noir for the table. I finished my lime mojito and followed that with three glasses of wine. There was no mistaking the fact that I was getting jolly. That familiar warmth engulfed me, and I noticed that my voice had gotten a little louder as the evening progressed.
All would have been well had I just gone to bed after dinner, but my co-workers insisted on finishing the evening off with a nightcap. We sat down in the hotel bar and since I was willing to try something new, I had what they were having. The first drink was vodka straight, on the rocks. That was a shock to my taste buds and the effect on my mental clarity was swift! After powering through that drink, whose flavor I am apparently not manly enough to appreciate, I noticed that my speech was beginning to slur and I was having mild difficulty thinking of specific words as I chit-chatted. Aside from this minor impediment, I felt fine. My body was relaxed, and my mind was chill.
The last round was served at 11:00 pm and was a mid-shelf bourbon, straight, on the rocks. That was even worse tasting than the vodka, but I tenaciously drank it all. By the time I was finished, my vision was starting to tilt to the right, and I felt dizzy. It wasn’t a bad feeling, but I instinctively knew I was very drunk and shouldn’t have another. I left the bar and clumsily shuffled off to my room. I remember feeling happy and warm as I stumbled, holding on to walls and railings for support. After fumbling through the door, I lost my balance and fell to the floor next to the bed. The room started spinning even more and all I could do was lie there. After about ten minutes I got up, laid on the bed and turned on the TV.
I woke up fully dressed at 2:30 am, sitting up against the headboard on top of the covers, with the TV blaring and all the lights on. I had a splitting headache and a faint nauseous feeling in my stomach. Rolling off the bed, I got undressed, took four Advil then drank a glass of water. I turned off the lights and laid down again, hoping for relief. It was a miserable night. My head pounded and felt like it would shatter with every heartbeat. My alarm sounded at 6:30 am and my whole body ached. My head still hurt and I felt sick, but I got up willingly, hoping that a shower would release me from this unfamiliar suffering. As I showered it dawned on me; I wasn’t sick, this was my first hangover!
I remembered my brother-in-law telling me that water helped with hangovers, and from movies, I recalled that coffee was the cure for drunkenness. Once I got to the conference room, I drank as much water as I could stand and pounded a cup of coffee. Surprisingly, this brought me no relief. My stomach was in revolt, my head pounded, and my body ached, but I had to act like all was well and participate in the meeting. I was embarrassed and didn’t want to be known as the noob drinker or the irresponsible party animal who allowed alcohol to get in the way of his work. I feigned calm while my insides churned.
Thirty minutes into the meeting I felt something stir inside of me I knew I couldn’t suppress. I casually excused myself, and once out of sight, ran for my life to the bathroom at the end of the hall. I made it just in time to projectile vomit surprising amounts of matter into the toilet of the last stall. After my retching had subsided, I realized there was a guy sitting on the toilet in the stall next to me and I worried that I might have splashed his feet with vomit.
“I’m sorry,” I said exhaustedly, with true shame.
“Don’t worry about it. We’ve all been there,” he said, graciously.
I never did meet that man, but I’m still grateful to him for his simple act of kindness to me.
This was a kind of sick I had not experienced before, and I had to calmly excuse myself from the meeting three more times that morning. By the last episode, I was dry heaving with such force that I feared the blood vessels in my eyeballs would rupture. Thankfully, they didn’t. At lunch, my colleagues wondered why I didn’t want to eat anything. Wearing sunglasses and slumping to my left in a booth, I said wearily, “I think I’m having my first hangover.”
Instead of calm sympathy, I was met with amused laughter and stories from each of them as they recounted college hangover experiences. Their hangover recovery time, they told me, was a lot shorter in their twenties than in their thirties or older. That explained why I felt terrible all that day and wasn’t fully recovered until the following morning. It felt great to feel great again and I knew I never wanted to suffer that way again.
Control Through Documentation
This hangover experience shook me. Was I becoming an alcoholic after all? Would my life soon spiral out of control? I was genuinely concerned, but after discussing the incident with friends and more experienced family members, I realized that almost every responsible drinker has gone too far at times and the pain endured served as a great educator of what not to do. There was nothing to fear because it was simply a learning experience.
Even still, after returning home from Dallas I decided to start recording every drink I consumed indefinitely, from January 2019 on. In my record, I included the quantity and types of drinks, who I was with, where I was and the hangover severity after each drinking event. I did this to hold myself clearly accountable for all drinks consumed and to stay mindfully aware of what I drank. By doing so, I was certain I would not lose control and hurt myself or my family.
2019 Drinking Statistics
Below are some statistics and charts calculated from the data I recorded from 1 January through 31 December 2019. They show what, where and with whom I drank and the hangover effect experienced.
Total Drinks Consumed
What I Drank
Where I Drank
Who I Drank With
Some drinking highlights from the year included a weekend away in Las Vegas where my wife and I joined my Texas sister and brother-in-law and their very fun friends for a great time. Trying all kinds of fruity drinks while cruising to Mexico with the entire family was a blast and spending several chill evenings with my wine tour buddy on his back porch, discussing the complexities of life was very therapeutic. I’ve also started learning the craft of winemaking and have made one-gallon batches each of fig, plum, peach and pomegranate wines with fruit from my own trees. It has been a lot of fun to experiment and learn how to perfect a process that people (including Jesus) have been practicing for thousands of years.
The Negative Effects of Drinking
Middle-Aged Man Gains Drinking Wisdom
Every experience in life can give us wisdom if we have the wisdom to learn from our experiences in the first place. I entered 2019 with a cautious curiosity about alcohol and began exploring the taste and feel of it carefully. I learned a lot about what not to do and how to keep myself safe and healthy. I also learned what I like and what I don’t like. Each person is different, but here are eleven insights gained that I remind myself of often. These tidbits of knowledge have helped me maximize my enjoyment of alcohol and avoid unnecessary pain.
1. Alcohol is a drug and a toxin and should be treated with respect.
2. Drinking and driving is dangerous, stupid and criminal. Don’t do it. Ever.
3. Self-medicating with alcohol to cope with life is a slippery slope towards abuse. Don’t fall into this trap.
4. Be mindful and record how much you drink. If you’re not careful, it will get away from you.
5. To minimize its negative effects on your health, consume less than the recommended maximum drinks per day and week.
6. You found your drinking limit through experimentation. Don’t cross that limit again. In fact, consciously stay safely below that limit.
7. Just because you can drink doesn’t mean you should. Pay attention to your body and the situation you’re in and say no when you feel a drink isn’t appropriate at the time.
8. There is no need to pressure yourself into liking what your friends drink. Drink what you like.
9. Remember to stay hydrated, eat food and drink slowly.
10. Alcohol is a fun social lubricant, but any awkwardness you feel in social settings is 100% in your head. Continuously work to let go of your insecurities and enjoy life, with or without alcohol in your system.
11. Alcohol itself is neither good nor evil. It is simply a substance that can bring added enjoyment to your life or, if abused, will invite poor health and sorrow.
Remember that Book of Mormon phrase I mentioned before, about wickedness and happiness? I actually do believe that wickedness will never lead to happiness, but my definition of wickedness has shifted greatly from what I used to believe. Mormon religious leaders teach that all the pleasures of life will eventually fade. Admittedly, it is fair to say that drinking alcohol is a temporary pleasure that doesn’t last. But so is eating a good steak or drinking a steaming mug of hot chocolate on a cold day.
Consumption of anything doesn’t create happiness, but cherishing moments of pleasure with people we care about strengthens relationships and binds people together. I believe that quality time spent with friends and family produces lasting happiness and joy in this life because of the memories that remain with us. No one should drink alcohol if they don’t want to. Whether you’ve got a mojito or Mountain Dew in your glass, it’s not actually about the drink, but about the company you’re with.
Demonizing and forbidding a substance may seem like the simplest ways to control people, but this approach actually robs them of the opportunity to mature and learn to control themselves. A better approach is to follow the direction of Mormon faith founder, Joseph Smith, when he said, “I teach them correct principles, and they govern themselves.” This statement lends strength to the Biblical teaching that we should learn to do all things in moderation. There is wisdom in not partaking of alcohol until one is legally allowed and mature enough to handle it. But that immaturity could partially be a result of parents not being willing to openly discuss the dangers and appeal of alcohol with their kids. Silence from trusted adults about something as ubiquitous as alcohol only allows the mystique of the thing to grow.
Aside from my Dallas episode, my experiences with alcohol during 2019 were enjoyable. It was fun to explore new flavors and sensations with my family and friends. I freely admit that I really like feeling jolly. I’m a happy drunk and it feels good to have my underlying insecurities completely removed for a while so I can just appreciate the people I’m with. My taste buds have developed and some things that tasted terrible to me a year ago, like hard cider, are quite delicious to me now. That may seem weird to a non-drinker, but remember, there’s a whole nation of people who have developed an appreciation for the flavor of Vegemite. After a year of learning how to enjoy and respect alcohol, I see no reason to deny myself the indulgence of an occasional good drink with good people; but you can be sure I’ll keep a record of it!